Monday, June 08, 2009

Crime and atonement

Serious Things is one of the most acutely observed psychological thrillers I have come across. It concerns itself with the life of Bruno Jackson, a 30-something gay civil servant who spends his days in a lonely simulacrum of a real life. Initially, Bruno's dissatisfaction with the general scheme of things seems tedious but as the novel progresses, Norminton unravels, with enticing precision, the reasons behind Bruno's apathy.

The novel is divided in "Then" and "Now", alternating chapters/sections meant to give us insights into the two profound elements of Bruno's life—an incident from the past and the present, the all-consuming present, permanently affected by the past.

"Then" deals with the early '90s, when Bruno arrives at a posh school on the South Downs. There he is befriended by Anthony Blunden, a rakish young boy with an interest in poetry. Bruno falls inconceivably in love with Anthony, and Norminton uses the familiar literary trope of the nostalgic English school setting to drip the one-sided affair in intensity.

The two artistically inclined boys are welcomed into the house of Mr Bridge, their English teacher, who serves them poetry and biscuits. The trio has much in common—the boys, their enthusiasm; the teacher, his infectious knowledge. The meetings turn into elongated sessions of merrymaking and laughter, and such a setting must inevitably tip into an embarrassed situation, so critical for a novel of this type.

Anthony writes a novel caricaturising members of the school—its staff, students, wardens, dean. Expecting lavish praise for what he thinks is a work of great precocity, Anthony is aghast to learn Mr Bridge’s uncomplimentary views on his work.

The relationship between the boys and the teacher deteriorates, and with time, the bitterness that Anthony, and adventitiously, Bruno feel for Mr Bridge assumes a character that will only be satiated by something drastic. And so it is.

On to "Now", and the ghost of those school days, meant to be an unforgettable halcyon period, haunts Bruno, even as a chance encounter with Anthony at a common friend's party brings home to him the utter normalcy that envelopes Anthony's life, much against his own. A beautiful wife, a successful career, the works—is it merely a matter of a restless conscience, or does Anthony's return spark in Bruno his unrequited love, besides a smattering of jealousy?

Norminton gradually develops the plot, and his treatment of Bruno as both stalker and victim is careful. The novel builds up to a promising climax, much appreciated under the circumstances, and very definite in its resolution of Bruno's so-far muddled morality.

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